Language

Flattery — the Social Lubricant

Gentle Readers, As you have been undoubtably aware for some time, this blog aims for audience with well above average vocabulary and IQ. You and your fellow readers are a very select group with strong interest in science and product design. You are scientists, engineers, and intellectuals. You have an amazing sense of style and fashion. You are able to see patterns and spot details that escape most of those around you. How do I know? I can see the strong engagement with the material on this blog — it’s all there in black and white numbers provided helpfully by Google day in and out. Some of you might think this letter cynical. But all of you know that this content appeals directly your amygdala — you are as happy to be recognized for your brilliance as I’m for your continued readership of my writing. You all know you are special, and you want to be acknowledged as such by those around you. And not only are you all above average, you are also extraordinarily lucky. Some might call this the “optimism bias”, but you and I know that your chances of success are much higher than the average Joe…

Thinking about the Science of Communication and Interaction

Alien Senses

In the Galaxy Far Far Away… What if sentient being evolved on a planet with permanent cloud cover? What if these being never saw stars? Would they still be able to discover the laws of nature? These kinds of hypothetical thinking questions — the Gedankan Experiments, as Einstein put it — are very useful in science. I’ll try to use them here for analyzing product design and communication. So what senses do we need to communicate? And what body appendages are necessary to produce this communication? Note that it helps keep track of these separately. Aroma-bet When I was little, I “designed” a language based on smell: each smell was assigned a character in an alphabet and, strung together in sequence, my smelly letters transcribed into words — the Aroma-bet. There were several problems with this: It was difficult to get an alphabet-worth of distinct odors; Arranged next to each other, the odors started to blend into each other, making “reading” difficult; I got a very bad headache; My mom didn’t like her expensive perfumes used in such a creative way… And I couldn’t remember what letter each smell stood for, requiring the creation of a smell-o-dictionary, which in turn…

The Haptic Feel of Books versus eBooks

We’ve traveled to Rome for our family vacation this year, and aside from a few summer reading books that I couldn’t find in an eBook format, we relied on our two Kindles and 3 iPads for our family reading needs. This is the second summer we brought primarily electronic versions of books—”The Count of Monte Cristo” is much easier to read when it fits into your hand and doesn’t weigh a ton… In the days before the Kindle and iPad, we carried an extra suitcase just for books. But there are drawbacks to buying and reading eBooks. Below are some of my thoughts and experiences—the cogitations of a voracious reader. Time & Progress As I was reading my novels, I found myself repeatedly trying to figure out where in the book I was. How far along was I? When is the next natural break (chapter, section end)? How many pages are there to the end of the chapter, end of the section, end of the book? These were not idle curiosities about my reading accomplishments, although when you do finish reading the book version of “The Count of Monte Cristo”, you do have a sense of having read something. An…

Language-learning expertise

Landau, E. (2010). “From brain to language to accent.”  CNN Online. Retrieved on October 4, 2010: http://pagingdrgupta.blogs.cnn.com/2010/09/23/from-brain-to-language-to-accent/?hpt=Sbin Becoming a proficient speaker of at least one language is a hallmark of the typical human psychological development. When it comes to learning more than one language, however, our abilities seem much more widely dispersed. Why might some people display a greater “talent” for learning a second language (or more) than others? By far the best known predictor of success at foreign language learning is the learner’s age.  An increasing number of children who grow up in bilingual environments from early on may well grow up to be fluent speakers of both their native languages. But you don’t have to be natively bilingual in order to master multiple languages at the native-speaker level. In a classic study of second-language acquisition by Johnson & Newport (1989), immigrants to the USA were tested for high-level mastery of English (including phonetic and grammatical nuances), and the results were examined as a function of age at initial immersion in the English-speaking environment. People who started learning English before the age of 7 tended to achieve native-like proficiency. From there on, the older one was at arrival, the less native…

Language and thought in user-centered design

Deutscher, G. (2010). “Does language shape the way you think?”  New York Times Online Edition. Retrieved on October 4, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html This article summarizes the history and the current status of the linguistic relativity hypothesis or the idea that “language shapes thought.” This idea comes in several different formulations. The version on which Deutscher’s review focuses is a cross-linguistic claim that speakers of different languages use different mental representations or processes as a result of having learned different languages as children. A particularly strong version of the cross-linguistic hypothesis suggests that our native language provides us with a basic toolbox of conceptual representation, so if a concept or a mode of thought is not encoded in a given language, its monolingual speakers would be incapable of thinking about such a concept or thinking in such a mode.  For instance, linguistic relativity led to the prediction that people’s perception of differences in color should reflect the way their language encodes color.  This prediction was spectacularly disproven by the discovery that people whose language only has two color terms in its vocabulary perceive and categorize colors similarly to speakers of English, which has 11 basic color terms, plus many non-basic ones (Berlin…

Using Menu Psychology to Entice Diners

Kershaw, S., (2009). “Using Menu Psychology to Entice Diners.” New York Times Online. Visited on October 02, 2010: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/23/dining/23menus.html. This article discusses how an understanding of human psychology is being applied to sculpt a restaurant menu into a lucrative tool for the restaurateur. Restaurateurs play down the importance of the cost figure by eliminating the dollar sign and decimals. Adding a personal touch to an item (‘Grandma Mary’s cake’) or a descriptive menu label (‘buttery pasta’) draws more attention to the dish. Other decoys include using a description that glorifies a more profitable dish compared to others. During the tough economic times in the last year, some restaurants were reinventing their restaurants through such menu design techniques, and were hoping that would make the difference they needed. Conceptual design: When you go to a restaurant, good food is not the only thing you seek; you are looking for a good experience. Of course sometimes, great food can make us turn a blind eye to any other inadequacy and draw us back into the restaurant. Nevertheless, a good experience overall manifests itself as a stronger loyalty. If your overall experience has made a lasting positive impression, you may recommend the restaurant…

On “Singing ‘Rewires’ Damaged Brain”

Gill, V. (2010). “Singing ‘Rewires’ Damaged Brain.” BBC World News. Visited on 24 June 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8526699.stm Summary: This article discusses how singing can teach stroke patients to recover their speech abilities. Singing uses a different part of the brain than the areas that involve speech. The idea is that if the “speech center” of the brain is damaged patients can use their “singing center.” Already established as a medical technique, “melodic intonation therapy” was further studied by the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School with the findings presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Using medical technology to scan the brain doctors were able to deduce that most speech took place on the left side of the brain, but melody and singing took place on the right side. This study is one of many larger studies examining the general effects of music and the brain. Dr Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist from Northwestern University, has concluded that musical training is an important part of children’s education. This article is important because many people have experienced or know someone who has experienced a stroke. Reading this article may prompt further investigation for those affected to seek…